Computer Science class 3D printing of light boxes

Computer science project sheds light on little-known changemakers

Coming from over a year of at-home and hybrid learning, Middle School computer science teacher Jeremy Schwartz found he had developed a plethora of online resources to help support his students. Having this solid foundation of instructional material, Schwartz says, gave him “an opportunity to say how can I make my curriculum more meaningful, instead of just technical?”

Schwartz’s desire for meaning in his classroom led to the creation of a new project with his seventh-grade learners. First, Schwartz collaborated with Middle School librarians Tad Andracki and Amy Atkinson, who compiled a list of 16 lesser-known figures from social justice movements, both historical and current. Then, he randomly assigned each student one of these “Illuminaries” to research. Once they understood more about each figure’s work, the students began designing and 3D printing lightboxes to celebrate their accomplishments.

The Illuminaries featured include former Chicago mayor Jane Byrne, disability activist Ed Roberts, actor and LGBTQ+ activist George Takei, and Marian Anderson, the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. When creating the list, Andracki says they asked, “Who are these luminaries from different social justice struggles who really don’t get light shined on them?” This led to a varied list of heroes whom students might not have encountered before. Andracki hopes that learning a little more about these pioneers will encourage students to realize “this is a real person whose real life was affected by things, and they decided to make a change.”

Lithophanes in computer science class

The students’ creations combine 3D modeling, computational thinking, slicing software, and 3D printing to become a synthesis of art, engineering, and historical research. Students searched for archival photographs of their subjects with the appropriate contrast to create lithophanes, a type of semi-translucent etching. These images are placed in a box that students must also design and print, which includes the light source that illuminates the lithophanes. All in all, Schwartz says, the projects involve “a lot of experimenting” as students go through various iterations to perfect their designs.

Scwartz finds a lot of value in the collaboration between his class and the Middle School librarians. He describes it as a true team effort, which helps the students build interdisciplinary skills and the faculty build collaborative connections. Andracki agrees, admiring “the way that [Schwartz] is using the content of his class to also advance a particular struggle, to highlight diversity, and to highlight these important people.” When completed, the lightboxes will be shared, along with short summaries of the Illuminaries’ lives, so that even more Lab community members can learn their inspiring stories.

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